Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ode to a Point Guard (Wherever You Are)

The Hawks have tried.


Different GM, coaches, and scouts have tackled a painful issue that has now grown legendary around the dozens that dutifully follow the Atlanta Hawks.

The issue has seen a number of failed tries and missed opportunities. So much so that the issue has really become The Problem.

Watching the Hawks put down the Dee-troit Pistons 87-83 to take the Bad Boys in all games since our namesake filled out the Hawks jersey in '93-'94 was nice, but it did once again illustrate that the Hawks still have The Problem.

And that problem is the point guard position.

The fact that Mike Bibby is a handsome upgrade to the futility that is the decade of the aughts shouldn't mean that the Hawks have Hall-of-Fame play coming from that position, just that The Problem has become almost a scar across the face of a franchise that isn't exactly known for it's good looks.

The Problem has really reared it's head since the Hawks decided to rebuild after a lackluster (being kind here) performance in the 1999 Playoffs against the Knicks, where the Hawks alternated between looking old and slow and then doing both.

After that series and before the 1999 draft, the Hawks sent Mookie Blaylock packing to Oakland in order to get the #10 pick in a somewhat PG rich draft.

Since Blaylock, who is #2 in Hawks history in assists, left town, the Hawks have not had sent an All-Star at the position, and Blaylock only did it in 1994.

Before Blaylock, there was Doc Rivers, who is #1 all-time for the Hawks in assists. Between Blaylock and Rivers, they finished in the Top 10 in assists percentage 5 times between 1986 and 1999. Not outstanding, but their decent work at least gave the Hawks a chance to win with these two running their respective playoff teams---Rivers with the Dominique teams of the 80's and Blaylock with the Lenny Wilkens teams of the 90's.

After the Blaylock deal, the Hawks had no point guard help behind him and being in the rich draft of 1999, the Hawks were looking at (5) potential point guards: Steve Francis of Maryland, Baron Davis of UCLA, Andre Miller of Utah, William Avery of Duke, and Jason Terry of Arizona.

Francis was a consensus first pick among points (he went #2 overall famously to Vancouver), and though some favored Miller over Davis, it was Baron who went off the board next at #3. It was believed that the Hawks might have a shot at Miller at #10, but he was snatched by Cleveland at the 8th pick.

Miller represented the last of what was considered to be true point guards. The next two, Avery and Terry, were scorers more than creators. There were those leading up to the draft that the Hawks would take the ACC-bred Avery, but there were other who questioned Avery's makeup after leaving Duke following his freshman season.

Terry was considered to be what was called at the time a combo guard---point guard body, shooting guard ability. Terry had participated on the championship Arizona team and had generally been considered a solid player coming out of the Wildcats program.

So when the 10th pick came up, the Hawks went with Terry and promptly stuck him behind Vernell "Bimbo" Coles for the 1999-2000 season.

Early on, it was clear Terry was not a set the table point guard, but subsequent efforts to try and make him their Allen Iverson failed miserably as the Hawks tried to play other guards like Matt Maloney and made a deal for Brevin Knight to address the playmaking shortcomings of Terry at the point.

It was in the offseason, before the 2001-2002 season that the Hawks made a critical mistake at the point guard position. Believing that Terry was not a point guard and was better suited coming from the shooting guard position and maybe playing some point, the Hawks entered the 2001 draft scouting the point guard position after thinking they addressed the position two drafts earlier.

The 2001 draft had a top point guard coming out of college in Jamaal Tinsley from Iowa State. Some liked Jeryl Sasser of SMU--being a 6'6 point guard got folks thinking of Penny Hardaway.

The Hawks had the #3 pick and while their workout turned out that they like Kwame Brown, it looked as though he would be the top pick to Washington. Their next best player was Shane Battier, but thought #3 might be too high. Pau Gasol was also on the Hawks radar with that pick, but when draft day came near, Hawks GM Pete Babcock decided to pull the trigger on a deal with Memphis GM Billy Knight---a deal that sent the #3 pick, Brevin Knight, and Lorenzen Wright to the Grizz for Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the #27 pick.

Babcock told the HHB at the time that, "We thought we could take a player that might be an All-Star someday or we could go ahead and get that player today." What he also told the HHB was that at #27 he was looking at "two guys that could make a difference at point guard for our team."

Tinsley was expected to go high in the draft--being the top rated point guard can do that for you---but as pick after pick came off the board, Tinsley dropped and it got those watching the draft in Philips Arena excited for the possibility of a top rated player falling into their laps that late in the draft.

Soon, at number 22, a point guard went, but it was Sasser, not Tinsley. Little known international point guard Raul Lopez was selected a couple of picks later and before you know it, the Hawks were there, on the clock, with the opportunity to use the 27th pick as Babcock has indicated to us earlier.

Babcock had issued the caveat that, if his guys weren't there, they wouldn't use the pick and get stuck with a 3 year deal for a player they didn't want. But there was no way that Lopez and Sasser were his guys and so it seemed a fait accompli that the Hawks had their man.

Then---it was announced that the Hawks had dealt the pick to the Pacers.

People looked confused--What had happened? The Hawks had the Grizzlies draft Tinsley for them and quickly sent him to Indiana for a 2003 first rounder (Boris Diaw).

Years later, on the day of his resignation from the Hawks as GM, Babcock exclusively told the HHB that he had indeed still had his man on the board when the 27th pick came calling, but it wasn't Tinsley and it wasn't even hotshot Arizona freshman Gilbert Arenas.

It was a little known French point guard named Parker. Tony Parker.

Babcock said in that interview in 2003 that the second biggest regret (behind bringing JR Rider into Atlanta) was passing on Parker, who had already established himself as an All-Star caliber PG for the San Antonio Spurs, who jumped on Parker with the very next pick.

When asked by us why he passed when his guy was on the board, Babcock admitted that the Hawks didn't have enough scouting on Parker to convince that he would be able to play the position in the NBA.

So the Hawks entered the 2001-2002 season with Terry at the point, this time adding "big" point guard Emanual Davis to play alongside Terry. Davis started 20 of 29 games before suffering a season ending injury. It wasn't working anyway--the Hawks trying to compensate for Terry playing the 2 by having a taller, but less talented point guard only made the Hawks weaker on the whole.

So the Hawks went back to the drawing board in the 2002 draft and traded a pick they had acquired from the Rockets (for Terrence Morris) in the 2001 draft to get back into the first round and select Gonzaga PG Dan Dickau.

The Hawks rolled out the red carpet for Dickau before the season and treated him like a lottery pick and future point guard. Unfortunately for Dickau, coach Lon Kruger never embraced Dickau and the rookie spent the season injured or stapled to the pine, playing only 50 games and getting 85 assists.

So it was point guard again for Terry, who had his best season ever as a point, getting 600 assists and finishing in the top 10 in Assist % for the first (and only) time in his career.

The Hawks drafted Diaw in 2003 and Terry was back at the point, but the team was slipping off the cliff---finshing with only 28 wins.

The Hawks had tried to rebuild after the 1999 playoffs, but despite bringing in "stars" like Abdur-Rahim and Glenn Robinson, and having a lot of first round picks (DerMarr Johnson, Dion Glover, Cal Bowdler, Dickau, Diaw, Terry), the Hawks couldn't get out of first gear--and a large part was clearly due to the inefficiancy at the point.

The Babcock regime knew this, even with a somewhat statistically productive Jason Terry, but it was evidenced by the moves for Brevin Knight, Dickau, the intentions at the 2001 draft, and the failed Emanual Davis experiment.

Without a point guard, the Hawks struggled to put away games late--as Terry was never comfortable bringing the ball down in crunch time when half court is king. Terry would often turn the ball over or wait too long to start the offense. He never could create for others consistently late in games---if he wasn't creating his own shot, nothing was going to happen.

So when Babcock stepped down in '03 and Billy Knight took over--the man who made the sweet Gasol deal for the Grizzlies--there was hope this could be addressed moving forward.

In 2004, the Hawks drafted Josh Childress and Josh Smith, two swingmen. When talking with Knight regarding the Hawks backcourt, specifically Terry, he said, "Don't call Terry a point guard---don't call anyone a point guard or a "1"---those are labels that you put on these players--I only see guards."

Three months later, Jason Terry was dealt to Dallas, leaving the Hawks entering the 2004-2005 season with a combination of newly acquired Tony Delk, Tyronn Lue, Kenny Anderson, and Boris Diaw taking turns at the point under head coach Mike Woodson.

Needless to say the season was a disaster, and the Hawks won a paltry 13 games, but they did garner the #2 pick in the draft--a draft that had (3) bonifide point guards in it---Wake Forest's Chris Paul, North Carolina's Raymond Felton, and Illinois' Deron Williams.

Paul had been sensational on the ACC and sometime national stage, showing from his first games at Wake that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with. Williams had come on strong in his last year at Illinois, leading them to the finals before losing to Felton's Tar Heels--and while Felton was on the winning team, he wasn't considered to be as true a point guard as the burly Williams.

In '99 the Hawks had to take what was left after Francis, Davis, and Miller had been selected. In 2001, the Hawks had their guys and passed--leaving the rebuilding project DOA and Pete Babcock without a GM job.

Now, in 2005, the Hawks could make amends---even though nationally, Andrew Bogut and Marvin Williams were considered bigger upside prospects, the Hawks needed a point guard, didn't they?

Alas, as Hawks fans know all too well---Billy Knight's "I only see guards" comment came to roost as the Hawks passed on Paul, Williams, and Felton to take Marvin. Knight insisted that the Hawks could win with a roster full of swingmen, so long as somebody could bring the ball up the court.

To that end, Billy paid for Joe Johnson and had Mike Woodson try Joe at being the playmaker, evidenced by Royal Ivey's (66) starts that season--and while the Hawks were better, they were still a 26 win team--and void a playmaker at point guard.

Paul, in his rookie season, accumulated more assists than any Hawks point guard since Blaylock's 616 in his All-Star '94-'95 season.

In the offseason, Knight could have continued down his trek of "I only see guards" and selected Washington standout Brandon Roy to put next to Johnson---Instead Knight mysteriously selected another forward, Shelden Williams. Amazingly, Knight had finally broken---he subsequently went after veteran point guard Sam Cassell with a 2 year offer before Cassell went back to the Clippers (!)---Knight then turned to Speedy Claxton, who has never fulfilled his contract and hope that the Hawks had as their point man in large part due to injuries.

On to the 2007 draft---the Hawks finally selected a forward that made sense (Al Horford), but also used the 11th pick on a PG---Acie Law of Texas A&M. Law, like Terry before him had been called out as a combo guard---though they aren't called that anymore---they are called "Not True Point Guards".

The next point guard after Law, Rodney Stuckey, was selected a few picks later by the Pistons.

Fast forward to Saturday night and compare the two guards as they stand today:

Acie Law has struggled to gain the confidence of his head coach and therefore has struggled to see time on the floor, especially after recovering fully from an injury which stole some of his rookie year.

At times, Law has looked like Dickau---trying to find his place on the court and in the league---unlike Dickau, however, Law has the quickness to make things happen on the court---but his small sample size has limited the ability to say for sure if he can cut it as an NBA point guard.

All Rodney Stuckey has done in Detroit is force what was considered to be the Pistons glue guy and leader, Chauncey Billups, out of town so he can play more minutes. When Rip Hamilton is out of the game, it's Stuckey who seems to be a clear #2 scorer--and his speed to the hoop creates opportunities for others.

It's clear at this point who looks as if they have the chops to be a starting point guard in the league.

And yes, while the Hawks made the deal last season to bring in Bibby, his age and inability to defend underline the fact that the Hawks don't have much time left with this productivity from such a key position--and with Law struggling and not getting the floor time needed from his coach---the Hawks could be back to the drawing board very soon to once again find answers to the franchise's biggest on-the-court Problem.

The Hawks have tried or used their resources on many options to try and solve The Problem. They have passed on so many---not just passed but had their hands on and whiffed on--that this issue could have already been resolved.

Alas, it hasn't---and the fix now is painfully and obviously temporary---and the end result is that the Hawks still have The Problem.


dmorton said...

Ironic you write this post and then acie law goes out and looks like the pg of of the future.

Jason Walker said...

Good point---Hey, it would be great if they let Law play---They have to see whether or not he can be a starter in this league, because the clock on Mike Bibby is ticking rather loudly--he is still productive, but for how much longer?